by Susan Rosenthal
BOOK REVIEW: Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism, by Michael Albert, Zed Books, 2006
Michael Albert wrote Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism to refute criticisms of his earlier book, PARECON: Life After Capitalism.
PARECON (Participatory Economics) is Albert’s anarchist vision of
“an alternative to capitalism, built on familiar values including solidarity, equity, diversity and people democratically controlling their own lives, but utilizing original institutions.”
The thrust of this new book is to ensure that no one confuse PARECON with the socialist vision of mass democracy.
Albert devotes an entire chapter to attacking marxism. The section, “Marxism indicts Marxism,” cites seemingly anti-democratic, anti-worker statements by Lenin and Trotsky, but provides no references for the reader to check what they actually said and the context in which they said it. Such distortions are used to bolster the Albert’s argument that marxists and their parties will “trample workers on the road to ruling them.” His prime example is the Russian Revolution where, in his mind, the Bolsheviks “employed the working class as allies — really as troops — and then sold out the working class once victory over capitalism was attained.”
Albert’s analysis of the Russian Revolution, like all anarchist analysis, extracts events from their historical context. Providing that context is beyond the scope of this review, so I refer you to the eye-witness accounts of journalists like Arthur Ransome, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, John Reed, Victor Serge and Alfred Rosmer.
These writers describe the unprecedented mass democracy of the revolution and the workers’ councils (soviets) that were a hundred thousand times more democratic than any capitalist government.
They also describe the pervasive cold and hunger of the cities, and the seemingly insurmountable problems of transport and food supply, all caused by the capitalist blockade and the war. Even so, political and economic democracy prevailed. There were free meals for every school child and no one was allowed two rooms until everyone had one.
According to Albert, past attempts to build socialism have failed, not because the capitalist class has been utterly ruthless in holding onto power, but because socialists have the wrong methods and goals.
Albert warns that the goal of marxists is to put a “coordinator class” in power that will be just as exploitative as the capitalist class. Illogically, he argues that the working class is strong enough to defeat capitalism, but too feeble to prevent itself from being thrown out of power by a small class of bureaucrats.
Albert views the working class as oppressed, exploited and betrayed, but never powerful enough to liberate itself and humanity. If he is right, then genuine mass democracy is an impossible dream. Fortunately, he is wrong.
Some socialists pander to Albert on the basis that “anarchists and socialists want the same thing.” It’s true that anarchists and socialists both oppose capitalism, but what they want is quite different. These differences derive from the class origins of anarchism and socialism:
Anarchism reflects the individualism of the middle class; while socialism is rooted in the collective tradition of the working class.
Anarchists want a decentralized, local-based economy, similar to the land-based feudal economies that capitalism replaced. Socialists want to build a globally-coordinated economy that provides for everyone’s needs.
Like all anarchists, Albert opposes central planning as inherently authoritarian and undemocratic. However, in a genuine democracy, people would be free to choose the form of organizing that works best in each situation. Some things, like fresh produce, are better produced locally, while other things, like pharmaceuticals, are better produced centrally. Restricting people’s choices in advance is bureaucratic.
PARECON is a bureaucratic social model. Albert rejects the socialist principle, “from each according to ability, and to each according to need.” Distrusting that people could actually put this principle into practice, he proposes a complex “system of remuneration for effort and sacrifice” where those who work harder get more.
How will effort and sacrifice be measured, and by whom?
Albert’s belief in the “need for an external measure,” opens the door to the same evil he opposes — a professional class of bureaucrats who weigh and measure who does what. The only alternative would be a society where everyone is so involved in weighing and measuring that no work would ever get done!
New Class Divisions?
PARECON is not egalitarian because it divides society into two groups: those who can work; and those who can’t. While Albert assures us that the needs of the second group would be met, this is still a two-class system; some are rewarded on the basis of effort, and others are provided for on the basis of need or charity. The only way around this problem is a socialist society where everyone contributes what they can, and production is organized to ensure that everyone receives what they need.
While Albert rightly condemns capitalism as “a thug’s economy, a heartless economy, a base and vile and largely boring economy,” he rejects the only force that can defeat it — the coordinated power of the working class — and the only strategy that can put the working class in power — revolutionary marxism. What he offers instead is idealism, insisting that, “we need to incorporate classless values and structures in our demands, our process, our projects, and our movements.” This is bad advice. The more workers cooperate with employers, the more they are exploited.
In the battle between capital and labor, one must take sides. Albert abandons hope for life beyond capitalism when he rejects the potential power of the working class. Fortunately, the working class does not reject itself.
“Every time that workers have risen and momentarily toppled their oppressors, they have resorted to the same living democracy as they did in the Russian Revolution… in Spain in 1936, in Hungary in 1956, in France in 1968, in Portugal in 1975, in Poland in 1981 great revolutionary movements have thrown up workers’ councils, soviets. To defeat these soviets, dead parliamentary democracies or Stalinist tyrannies have had to resort to the most deadly warfare or the most disgusting oppression. The Russian Revolution is not just the most important event of the 20th century. It is a beacon for the 21st.” (1)